Bangladesh to Pope and All of Us: We Are You

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

We are responsible for the deaths of garment workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Just as we are responsible for the deaths of garment jobs in the United States. Our never-slaked appetite for more and cheaper consumer goods hurts the livelihoods and lives of millions of other people.sweatshops-240x265

I always sound so preachy when I write something like this. I buy stuff I don’t need too — so I’m talking to myownself here, as well. I am a child (old man) of the Sixties and global ecological consciousness just won’t leave me.

What if we had fewer clothes, and better clothes? Made of good material by skilled workers who are treated and paid well, whether in the US or Bangladesh. What if companies made less profit? Top executives made fewer millions? Investors looked at human, not just financial, return? Business journalism measured and covered more than just financial factors? I know, I know, this is all so “Imagine,” so John Lennon.

The new pope, Francis, said he was shocked that many of the 400 workers killed in the garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh last week were paid about $40 a month. “This is called slave labor,” he said. Unfortunately, Francis speaks for too many of us. If we’re shocked at how poorly the people who work in the countries that are on the labels of our clothes are paid, we just haven’t been paying attention.

Because we don’t want to. We want to buy yet another shirt, cheap. We want to see our stock price go up. We want to collect another fat bonus. And we don’t want to know, don’t want to think about, whose shoulders or heads we’re standing on to get the endless “more” that we hunger for.

Many Southern writers have illuminated the toll that slavery and segregation took on the whites who enforced this inhuman behavior. They had to continually lie to themselves about the conditions they created for black people. “It’s better for them. They’re content and happy. It’s all they’re capable of. This is normal, what God intended.” Lie after lie, minute after minute, shrivels the soul.

I just read Devil in the Grove, which just won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s about the horror of lynchings in Florida after World War II, and about Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP fighting against the white supremacist hijacking of law-enforcement and the courts in the South. During one major trial in the early 1950s, a racist prosecutor comes to have respect for Marshall, and a white reporter covering the trial says she wishes Marshall and the prosecutor could sit down and have lunch together — but no restaurant in Ocala, Florida, where the trial was held, would serve a black man and a white man together. That was normal then. In my lifetime

Just as in my lifetime it’s normal to wear clothing made by people paid a pittance and working in conditions we would find appalling. If we looked.

We lie to ourselves that it’s okay. Okay that the gap between the rich and the poor in this country has been growing since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Okay that the gap between the rich in this country and the poor in the rest of the world is a wound wider than the Pacific. And widening.

My friend Ron Meador, environmental writer for MinnPost, on Earth Day this year recalled a conversation with the conservationist writer Scott Russell Sanders. Meador wrote of Sanders’s “wry suggestion that we might reframe our consumption habits with a slight shift of language:

‘As a first step in that direction, let us quit using the word “consumer” for a season and use instead the close synonym, “devourer.” Thus, the Office of Consumer Affairs would become the Office of Devourer Affairs. In schools, the study of consumer science, which used to be called home economics, would become devourer science. Savvy shoppers would subscribe to Devourer Reports. Pollsters would conduct devourer surveys. Newspapers would track the ups and downs of the devourer price index.'”

Devourer. We Americans are devourers of the world’s resources, gobbling far more than our share. I’ve quoted before on this blog the Dakota word Wasichu, which the Indians called the whites — “Takes all the fat.” The whites took the fat part — of the buffalo, of the land — and left the Indians with bones.

We can afford to pay a higher price for our clothes so that workers in the US and abroad can make decent wages. Top executives can afford to make only 100 times what the average worker makes, not 500 times. Companies can afford lower quarterly results if the company builds sustainable performance over the long haul.

Let’s stop lying to ourselves. This disparity between rich and poor, this growing suppurating gap, is not okay. The people working in sweatshops in smog-befouled cities are not happy with their place — no more than the blacks who were slaves or the blacks who rode the back of the bus were happy with theirs.

Choosing not to look — being shocked — is another way of lying to ourselves. Companies that were getting clothes from the Bangladesh factories are falling all over themselves saying “Oh we didn’t…” “Oh we don’t…” “Oh we’re pressing for safety standards…” For most companies, the hit to their reputations will not outweigh the boost to their bottom line that low wages and unsafe conditions provide.

Those workers are us. We are them. It’s in our hands. We can buy goods from companies that treat workers and the environment with respect. Those goods will cost a little more — so we can buy a little less. Better stuff. Better made. For more peace of soul. We can invest in companies that treat workers and the environment with respect. Maybe we get a smaller return. In money. But so much greater, in peace of soul.

Let’s stop being shocked.

9 thoughts on “Bangladesh to Pope and All of Us: We Are You

  1. Not to either argue or endorse this perspective; this is a simple plea for all opinionators everywhere who publish a number: Put it in perspective or delete it.

    $40 a month? That tells us nothing. Compare it to what other jobs available in Bangladesh pay. Compare it to what food and shelter costs in Bangladesh. Compare the lifestyle of someone who holds a job like this to their lifestyle before getting it.

    Explain how, were we all to be willing to pay more … a lot more … for garments, how we might put that money in the hands of the employees and not the factory owner.

    Oh, and if we were all to buy fewer but more expensive garments, how we should help all of the newly unemployed workers who wouldn’t have jobs anymore because we’re all buying fewer garments than we used to.

    Answering questions like these sure would help the rest of us evaluate the points you’re making.

    Thanks.

  2. PM says:

    OK, let’s stop lying to ourselves….the myth of the “noble savage” is just that, a myth. This bunk about native Americans using every part of the buffalo is also generally a myth– it was true for a short period of time when the buffalo had become scarce from over hunting, but before that time, (before horses were brought in to the New World) there is plenty of archeological evidence of native Americans driving thousands of buffalo over cliffs and only eating the tongues (the greatest delicacy).

    But that tiny point really isn’t worth quibbling about. What is worth pointing out is that if we stopped buying cheap clothing, poor Bangladeshi’s would starve. The world is not as you have described it. There is not a lump of labor, or a lump of consumption or a single pie that gets divided (equally or unequally). These are all dynamic things, that grow and contract. Our consumption is not the problem, indeed, our consumption is the solution. Taking any steps that limit our consumption (either in total or geographically) would have catastrophic effect on the poorest people in the world.

    I have no problem with us being more discriminating consumers, with us putting pressure on the owners of factories that are unsafe, etc. But do not tie that in to a larger (and misguided) critique of our levels of consumption. Lowering our levels of consumption will only lead to prolonged poverty in the rest of the world.

    I also agree that the gap between the rich and the poor here in the US has grown tremendously, and I worry that this is becoming a danger to our civil society.

    At the same time, many of the poorest countries in the world are doing much better. Africa is the region I know best, and African countries have been experiencing very significant economic growth over the past decade. I really do not know enough about Bangladesh to comment, but the gap between the US and Africa has been shrinking, which is a very good thing indeed. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22156755)

  3. Good points, gentlemen, and good thinking.

    I don’t buy that making shoddy goods is the only answer to economic growth and individual prosperity. If Bangladeshi workers are making better shirts with better material, yes, they’ll make fewer of them. So then they can work making other things that we might actually need. Solar panels, more-efficient cars., medical devices. And if they are paid a decent wage for making good goods, they might not have to work so many hours or have so many members of the family working.

    Planned obsolescence has kept workers busy, but not made them more prosperous, here or abroad. The benefit of making shoddy goods goes to the shareholders through increased profit. And who might the largest shareholders be? Hmmm, senior execs, who already have more wealth than they need. (Yes, institutions, like pension funds, hold the largest bunches of stock, but it’s the individual execs and their stock options that most drive quarter-by-quarter management and the search for profit at all costs.

    Make fewer things we don’t need and open up capacity to make things we do.

    1. PM says:

      I agree with your general critique of corporate management. Corporations generally are run by the executives for the benefit of…the executives. Shareholders come second, and the boards tend to protect the top executives rather than the shareholders. As ownership has become more dispersed, the managerial class has replaced the ownership class as the principal beneficiary of the system (they are the ones who run the system and make the rules, so of course the system tends to benefit them)

      Bangladeshi factories make shoddy goods because there is little investment in either the workers or the factories. Without education and equipment they are not capable of making top notch apparel that can command a premium price. Currently, low price manufacturing is moving out of china as chinese factories are pricing themselves out of that particular market–they have invested too much in both their workforce and their industrial base to be able to get a return on cheap clothing. that is why china is moving into things like automobiles and white goods.

      This is what japan did after WWII, and what South Korea did in the 1960’s, and what China and Mexico and Brazil and India are doing now. There is no reason that Bangladesh can’t do the same thing–provided that they invest in institutions like good governance and schools and courts and government and transportation and infrastructure. It can be done, and it has been done.

      What would be foolish all around would be for the US to go into apparel making.

  4. Dennis Lang says:

    Here’s an excerpt from AP:

    “The death toll rose to 547 on Saturday and the stench of decaying flesh was sickening evidence that work was yet to be done…Rescuers said some bodies have deteriorated so badly that they have found bones without flesh.”

    Oh hell, small price to pay in human dignity and lives for the $20 billion garment industry that has obviously raised the living standard of these terribly impoverished people. Right? “Only two retailers acknowledged their clothes were being made there.”

    Free market at work. Self-regulation all that’s necessary!? Sure.

  5. Dennis Lang says:

    Are these stories nothing more than the inevitable consequence of global economics? From the “Daily Beast”:

    2. Another Factory Fire in Bangladesh
    At least eight people were killed in Bangladesh Thursday after an 11-story garment factory went up in flames. The fire, fueled by huge piles of acrylic products used to make sweaters, killed two major political leaders in the country. By the time firefighters arrived on the scene of the Tung Hai Sweater Ltd. Factory in the capital of Dhaka, the first few floors of the building were already engulfed in flames. Speaking to reporters, the deputy director of the fire service Mamun Mahmud described their desperate attempt to flee the building. “We recovered all of them on the stairwell on the ninth floor,” he said. The deadly fire comes as the death toll from an eight-story building collapse in Dhaka passed 900 this week.

  6. Bruce Benidt says:

    Bangladesh has touched a nerve — at least a PR nerve with many companies, and maybe even a humanitarian one. Almost daily now there are stories in the news of companies looking for safer sources of goods.
    Clothing retailers are starting to tell consumers about the origins of their goods, the way some food suppliers have been doing.
    Here’s a NYTimes story that covers this:

    Maybe a threshold was crossed. Consumers have power, if we choose to use it.

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